The Modern State

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The modern state dominates the political sphere. This article gives some definitions and concepts of what the modern state is, as derived from academic studies and books.


As identified by Wael Hallaq, the following are the essential form-properties of the modern state. What this means is that all modern states fulfill all 5 of these properties, and if a polity does not have any one of them, it does not count as a modern state. Of course, this does not mean that states do not change and evolve over time; they do, but within their particular paradigm.

The state as a historical product

The state is a product of history, and must be understood as such. It came about in Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries, shaped by the social, economic, and political conditions that existed in Europe at the time, as well as Europe's relations to the outside world via colonialism. This is also why Euro-America have the most successful, well-established states and the rest of the world has not followed as successfully.


Sovereignty is the idea that the people residing within a state's borders have a "will," and the state is there to embody and enact this will. Despite being largely imaginary, it is one of the hallmarks of the modern state, and the "will of the people" is one of the rallying cries often used in politics today.

Hallaq writes,

The will, popular and collective, does not presuppose actual and active individual participation but claims its collective force precisely because it is a fiction. The concept loses none of its force even when nondemocratic powers come to rule, for even in the absence of traditional democratic practices, any state (read: nation-state) comes to expect its sovereign will to be embodied in the acts and speech of its rulers, even when they happen to be a band of devils.[1]

Sovereignty also has an international dimension. This began to take form after the Peace of Westphalia (1648) which put an end to the 30 Years' War, by giving rulers the exclusive right to choose the official religions of their states, and disallowing any outside power from interfering in this process. Thus, the ruler becomes the representative of the citizens of the state - regardless of how he came to power or how oppressive his rule is.

Monopoly on legitimate violence

Hallaq writes,

If the modern state is constituted by sovereign will, and if sovereign will manifests itself through law, then the enforcement of law becomes the realization of that will. Will without the coercive instrument to back it up is no power at all: it is, in political terms, nothing... The boundaries of violence therefore are set only by the state, and it is its own measure that determines the type and level of violence to be applied against transgressors of its will. Put more clearly, the state is the supreme agent in the sanctioning of violence, for even if it were supposed that some divinely ordained punishment should be implemented or adopted, it would be so adopted as a choice of the state, as an expression of its will. Here, it is the state that ratifies divine will, not the other way round.

Rulers of various dynasties in history would also mete out punishments also of course, but the important distinction is that they did not enjoy a monopoly on violence. They often had to deal with tribal chiefs, local warlords, and other middlemen who enjoyed even more control over a particular area than they did. In a modern state that is unthinkable.


The bureaucracy of a modern state isn't a passive set of state employees ready to help society whenever something comes up. Rather, it's an active, intrusive force, shaping society the way the state sees fit. This includes everything from education and healthcare to taxes and public transportation.

Production of the citizen

This section needs work.

See also

Further reading

  • Wael Hallaq, "The Impossible State: Islam, Politics, and Modernity's Moral Predicament" (2012)


  1. Hallaq, Wael. The Impossible State: Islam, Politics, and Modernity's Moral Predicament (2012).